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October 2, 2016
Untroubled by SCOTUS Hurst ruling, unanimous Alabama Supreme Court upholds state's capital punishment procedures
As reported in this local article, headlined "Supreme Court of Alabama has unanimously upheld the state's capital murder sentencing scheme," a top state court has concluded that its capital punishment law is not to be consumed by the post-Hurst hydra. "post-Hurst hydra" (As regularly readers may recall, in this post not long after the Supreme Court in Hurst declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what I expected to become multi-headed, snake-like capital litigation as judges tried to make sense of what Hurst must mean for past, present and future cases.) Here are the basics and the context for this significant ruling:
The Supreme Court of Alabama has unanimously upheld the state's capital murder sentencing scheme, which signifies Alabama as the last state in the country that allows for this type of scheme. The ruling allows for judicial override, which means a judge can impose the death penalty even after a jury has recommended a lesser sentence.
This happened in Montgomery county in 2008, when Circuit Judge Truman Hobbs overrode a jury’s decision to sentence Mario Woodward to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing Montgomery police officer Keith Houts. After finding him guilty, the jury recommended life in prison without parole, “But Hobbs said the 34-year-old should die for killing Houts in September 2006,” the Advertiser reported at the time of the sentencing.
In March, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tracie Todd ruled that the judicial override sentencing scheme was unconstitutional in light of Hurst v. Florida — a January U.S. Supreme Court decision stating that Florida’s sentencing scheme, which also incorporated a judicial override system, was unconstitutional. Florida’s scheme left it to the judge to find the aggravating factors, not the jury.
The case that sparked Alabama's judicial override appellate process stems from a case involving four men who were charged with three capital murders. Defense attorneys argued the men should be barred from receiving the death penalty based on that the Supreme Court of the United States' decision.
Todd ruled in their favor, which barred prosecutors from seeking the death penalty. In her 28-page ruling, Todd called the judicial override practice a “life-to-death override epidemic” and questioned Alabama’s partisan judicial elections. “There is a time and place for diplomacy and subtlety,” Todd wrote. “That time and place has been expunged by the dire state of the justice system in Alabama. It is clear, from here on the front line, that Alabama’s judiciary has unequivocally been hijacked by partisan interests and unlawful legislative neglect.”
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange asked the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to vacate Todd’s order shortly after it was issued. In June the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals vacated her decision, stating that Alabama’s scheme differs from Florida’s because in Alabama the jury determines the aggravating factors before deciding the sentence.
Jerry Bohannon, one of the defendants challenging Alabama's sentencing scheme, subsequently petitioned for a writ of certiorari. Upon review, Alabama Supreme Court Justices echoed points made by the Court of Criminal Appeals. "Because in Alabama a jury, not the judge, determines by a unanimous verdict the critical finding that an aggravating circumstance exists beyond a reasonable doubt to make a defendant death-eligible, Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme does not violate the Sixth Amendment," wrote acting Chief Justice Lyn Stuart....
Strange praised the court’s decision, stating “Today’s ruling is an important victory for victims and for criminal justice. The Hurst ruling has no bearing whatsoever on the constitutionality of Alabama’s death penalty, which has been upheld numerous times.” Since Hurst, The United States Supreme Court has told the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider appeals filed on behalf of at least three Alabama death row inmates.
The full opinion from the Alabama Supreme Court is available at this link. I would call it a near certainty that some Alabama death row defendants will continue to seek certiorari review based on Hurst, and I suspect SCOTUS review will eventually be more a question of when rather than whether.
October 2, 2016 at 06:13 PM | Permalink
I believe the Alabama Supreme Court got it right on all counts and their statute does not offend the Sixth Amendment or Ring.
The jury unanimously found beyond a reasonable doubt that the killing involved two or more persons. The finding of that aggravating factor/element of capital murder therefore convicted Bohannon of a greater crime than what Scalia called "murder simpliciter." So, the def was made eligible for death by the jury, not the judge.
Bohannon also argued that the finding of the ag should not have been made in the guilt phase. But, that is where Justice Scalia said the finding "should logically be made", because the sole ag exposing a def to death is an element of a substantive crime.
Bohannon argued that the judge shouldn't have over-ridden the jury. But, again, Scalia said in Ring that "today's judgment has nothing to do with jury sentencing." Also, I believe the Alabama court got it right that the balancing decision of ags and mitigators is not an element of capital murder. It is a pure sentencing decision, and Scalia said that states that "leave the ultimate decision of life and death to the judge may continue to do so."
Posted by: bruce cunningham | Oct 2, 2016 8:55:43 PM